28 February 2014

remember that you are dust

In the movie Gladiator (2000), starring Russell Crowe (as the general who became a slave who became a gladiator who defied an emperor), there are many great scenes, but there’s one in particular worthy of note.  This is just before Russell Crowe, as Maximus, is about to fight in the arena.  He is disgusted by the senseless brutality of the games.  The late Oliver Reed, as Proximo, who manages a contingent of gladiators (the one including Maximus), is speaking to him about the Emperor Commodus.

He says of Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix), “He knows too well how to manipulate the mob.”  Maximus angrily responds, pointing toward the arena, “Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo.  This is not it.  This is not it!”  Unfazed, Proximo shouts at Maximus as he storms away, “Marcus Aurelius is dead, Maximus.  We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!”

In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which falls on the 5th of March this year, there are the powerful words which accompany the imposition of ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, this is the prayer that precedes the imposition:

“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth.  May these ashes be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, and a reminder that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Proximo and Ash Wednesday, in describing humans as “dust,” seem to be saying the same thing.  And at one level, both of them are.  All of us will “shuffle off this mortal coil.”  Still, with Proximo, there is a sense of resignation, a sense of hopelessness.  Ash Wednesday agrees that yes, we are dust, but that is a statement filled with hope.  That is so, because “only by [God’s] gracious gift” is this dust “given everlasting life.”

Still, even setting this wondrous reality aside for a moment, what’s wrong with being dust?  Remember where we came from.  We’re reminded of our origin, as beings of this planet, in the heart of a sun.  Astronomy tells us that everything, everywhere, was created inside a star.  We are creatures of star dust.

In a few days, as we embark on our Lenten journey, remember that we are star dust that has become aware of itself.  We are star dust that is loved by its Creator.

Remember that you are dust! 

(The image is of Pillar and Jets HH 901/902 from heritage.stsci.edu/2010/13/big.html)

21 February 2014

calm in conflict

A few days ago, my wife was looking through some files.  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary.  This was when we were just beginning our ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Twenty years later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s still something I need to work on.  I have made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I know that I have a long way to go. 

In his book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke speaks about courage in the midst of conflict.  He acknowledges “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized…  They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.” (p. xv) 

That’s what I mean by being more assertive and a less anxious presence. 

Steinke also says, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

That’s the challenge—and reward—of keeping calm while in conflict!

14 February 2014

pintertrek valentine

My choice of this image was inspired by my dear one, who loves to rave about how great Pinterest is.  It’s not that I feel insecure, but I just want the question settled, once and for all.

For anyone who knows us well, this one needs no explanation.  Taste the
sweetness pictured here—and it’s a sweetness at many levels.  There’s the obvious sweetness of the cookies, married with the sweetness of our 21st celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.  (That would be our 19th as husband and wife.)

So again, I ask her, “Be my number one”? 

(The image of the cookies, with instructions on how to make them, is from www.semisweetdesigns.com/2013/01/31/star-trek-valentine-cookies-and-giveaway.)